Thank God a Person Can Grow

Yizkor, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Much has been written about the meaning of Yom Kippur and the important themes of this holiest day of the Jewish year. But of all that’s been said, and of all the people to have said it, Congressman Jim Clyburn may have summarized Yom Kippur best with these six words: “Thank God a man can grow.”

Of course, Yom Kippur wasn’t anywhere on the Congressman’s radar when he quoted poet, Florence Earl Coates. It was this past April, and he was eulogizing his colleague, Senator Fritz Hollings, someone with whom he had been intertwined virtually his entire political career. 

Clyburn first met Hollings in February 1960. At that time, Clyburn was one of the students leaders organizing pro-integration sit-ins at South Carolina State, and Hollings was a second year governor who had run for office as a segregationist. Nevertheless, Hollings received the students who met with him graciously. “He opened up to us,” Clyburn said, “and we opened to him.” 

“Thank God a man can grow.” 

Two years later, no doubt influenced in part by his meetings with Clyburn and the other student leaders, Hollings encouraged the South Carolina state legislature to peacefully receive Harvey Gantt, the first African American student admitted to Clemson University. 

“Thank God a man can grow.” 

And then, much more recently, Clyburn received a call from Hollings regarding the federal courthouse that sits here in downtown Charleston. The building had been named for Hollings — a tremendous honor, to be sure, and Hollings was never one to shy away from honors. But he wanted Clyburn to sponsor legislation to change the name to honor U.S. District Judge Waties Waring instead, the justice whose dissent paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education and the ultimate undoing of legalized school segregation. “I was moved to tears,” said Clyburn, with obvious emotion in his voice on that day, too, “because I know South Carolina well, and I thought I knew Fritz Hollings well. [But] there was much more to him. Thank God a man can grow. Fritz grew, and I grew along with him.” [1]

This afternoon, our worship space is filled to overflowing with memories of those who came before us — those who passed away years, or even generations, ago; those who we lost in more recent years and days. Some were gentle and kind; some could be critical and harsh. Some were generous and giving; some kept their resources, their praise, maybe even their love, close to their chest. Some were a product of their time; some were far ahead of theirs. Most were probably a mix of all of these and more. What they certainly all share in common is that not a single one was perfect. So we each have a choice: How will we remember our loved ones and those who came before us? May we take our cue from this Yom Kippur day that champions change and growth. 

Judaism teaches that when we come to the end of our days, our deeds will be weighed on a great cosmic scale. All of the mitzvot and g’milut chasadim we have performed in our lives — all of the ways in which we have lived God’s command and extended God’s loving kindness to others — will be measured on one side of the scale: One weight for each good deed to our merit. On the other side of the scale, all of our sins and the ways in which we have come up short will be measured: One weight for each demerit. So far, a simple reckoning even a young child would note seems fair. But in Judaism there’s an all-important variable: When we recognize we’ve gone astray — when we stop, reflect, and ultimately change our ways — repentance and atonement don’t just cancel out or remove a demerit; they move it to the other side of the scale in our favor! At the end of the day, at the end of our days, God is willing to consider the best possible accounting of our lives we can put forward, and reward us for the work it took to get there. Let us too consider not only where a person started from, but look with favor on where they ultimately came to. 

“Thank God a person can grow.”

Yet, what if our loved ones didn’t grow, or didn’t grow enough? What if — whether their years were few or many — they never quite saw their way to the spiritual improvements we wish we could recount to their credit? In these instances, I find Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s framing very meaningful: 

Each lifetime, [he writes], is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

For some there are more pieces.

For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.

Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle.

And so it goes.

Souls going this way and that

Trying to assemble their myriad parts.

But know this.

No one has within themselves

All of the pieces to their puzzle,

Like before the days when they used to seal

Jigsaw puzzles in cellophane,

Insuring that all the pieces were there.

Rather everyone carries with them at least one 

And probably many pieces 

To someone else’s puzzle.

Sometimes they know it.

Sometimes they don’t.

But when you present your piece,

Which is worthless to you, 

To another, whether you know it or not,

Whether they know it or not,

You are a messenger from the Most High —

Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes. [2]

When a loved one dies — beyond the physical absence of their presence; beyond the loss of their voice, their touch — one of the most difficult parts of loss is the way in which they suddenly become fixed. While they had breath, our relationship with them was dynamic. But now they can no longer grow, no longer change; and we can no longer hope to talk with them, even argue with them, in an effort to help both of us grow. It seems all we can do is pray: “May they forgive us for falling short of what, in their best moments, they had taught us. May we forgive them for falling short of what we wished they could be.” [3]

Yet Judaism teaches us that it is possible, with our lives, to continue to redeem the lives of those who came before us. And that such redemption can even extend over several lifetimes. Consider the ritual of reciting Kaddish. Traditionally, it is understood to be a father’s failing if he passes away and his son does not know how to recite Kaddish in his memory and honor. In fact, that failing alone would be enough to keep the father from ascending to heaven. But if another person were to come along, after the father’s passing, and teach his son to recite Kaddish, or if the son were to take it upon himself to learn, this growth would be accounted to the father’s credit. As the son recites Kaddish, his father’s failing would be redeemed; his soul would ascend to heaven.

“Thank God a person can grow.”

And so, for so long as we are here — so long as our own names are written and, we pray, sealed in the Book of Life — may we never squander this gift.

Rabbi Israel Salanter once spent the night at a shoemaker’s home. Late at night, he saw the man working by the light of a flickering candle. “Look how late it is,” the rabbi said. “Your candle is about to go out. Why are you still working?” The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.”

For weeks afterward, Rabbi Salanter was heard repeating the shoemaker’s words to himself: “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.”

As long as the candle burns — as long as the spark of life still shines — we can mend and heal, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, begin again. [4]

“Thank God a person can grow.”

 

 

[1] “Emotional Eulogies Highlight Funeral of South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings,” Meg Kinnard, AP, April 17, 2019.

[2] Adapted from Honey from the Rock, with last line emended from Mishkan T’filah.

[3] On Wings of Awe, p. 468.

[4] Mishkan Hanefesh, Rosh Hashanah, p. 81.

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